Ethnic issues in the epidemiology of childhood obesity

Patricia B. Crawford, M. a.r.y. Story, May C. Wang, Lorrene D. Ritchie, Z. I. Sabry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

165 Scopus citations


Childhood obesity may be seen as a marker for high-risk dietary and physical inactivity practices. Recent increases in the prevalence of overweight and obesity among American children are not limited to one age, gender, or ethnic group, which suggests that unique behaviors of the members of various racial or ethnic subgroups of the population are unlikely to be the major contributing factors. Rather, it seems that environmental changes promoting increased energy intake and decreased energy output are occurring and have widespread impact on children from various backgrounds. Although no ethnic group is immune from the current shift in energy balance, differential rates of overweight seem to exist among ethnic groups. National probability samples of African-American, Hispanic, and white children in the United States provide clear evidence that white children are at lower risk for childhood overweight than are African-American or Hispanic children. Of concern is the lack of national data on the prevalence of overweight and obesity for Native-American and Asian-American groups. Also of concern is the aggregation of racial and ethnic subgroups, which may render prevalence rates meaningless. This possibility is clearly true with some surveys of weight status that combine diverse populations, such as Asians and Pacific Islanders, into one group. The high rates of obesity in African-American, Hispanic, and Native-American children are of concern. Although parental SES is associated inversely with childhood obesity among whites, higher SES does not seem to protect African-American and Hispanic children against obesity. In these groups, childhood obesity does not seem to be associated significantly with parental income and education. Health consequences of childhood obesity include a higher prevalence of type 2 diabetes and an increased risk for adverse levels of lipids, lipoproteins, and blood pressure. The effects of recently reported unprecedented levels of childhood overweight on subsequent risk for obesity in middle age are not known until future longitudinal data can be collected. It seems likely, however, that future health consequences of current early and severe childhood obesity will be staggering. Funding for adult follow-up of longitudinal studies of high-risk African American, Hispanic, and Native-American children is needed urgently to provide information on the long-term effects of childhood obesity. Halting the obesity epidemic is a formidable task, but the success in recent decades of drastically reducing childhood undernutrition offers hope and should spur similar action and leadership efforts. Promotion of efforts to reduce excess caloric intake with efforts to increase energy expenditure should receive paramount attention in the design of health programs. Given the relatively few published obesity-prevention and -treatment studies that are designed to address specific cultural issues, it is important to promote the development of culturally appropriate intervention strategies that are shown to be effective among youth of diverse backgrounds. Although the dietary and activity goals will be similar, parental, family, and community messages and techniques grounded in cultural traditions and norms will be different for each ethnic group. This approach is crucial in the United States, a country with an increasingly diverse population.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)855-878
Number of pages24
JournalPediatric clinics of North America
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2001


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